Sharing the benefit

November 12, 2009
by Matt Rist

Original GI Bill helped two top administrators get through college

For senior administrators Robert Chernak and Donald Lehman, the Yellow Ribbon Program is a chance to make a difference in the lives of fellow veterans. And they would know a little something about that - both officials are veterans who went to school on benefits from the original GI Bill.

Lehman, executive vice president for Academic Affairs, served six years active duty during the 1960s in the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Chernak served in the Navy Security Group and was stationed overseas in Japan during the Vietnam conflict. Both administrators said they see a chance to pay it forward with the Yellow Ribbon Program, a voluntary, government-sponsored program in which schools match financial aid provided to veterans from the government. GW provides veterans with more benefits and financial support through the Yellow Ribbon Program than any other D.C. school.

For Lehman, the GI Bill was critical for his enrollment in GW, where he pursued a doctoral degree from 1965 to 1970. Without the GI Bill benefits, he said he would not have been able to afford to go to GW.

"Even in those days, GW was more expensive than a public university," Lehman said in an e-mail. "I remember thinking tuition was relatively high."

Chernak and Lehman, two of the University's most senior administrators, are tasked with making some of the most important policies that directly affect students and faculty.

"As I work day in and day out, it's nothing conscious that I think about," Chernak said of his time in the military. "Clearly being in the military starts to foster a certain sense of discipline that one instills in themselves, whether providing leadership or understanding and following instructions from leaders, I guess that's the military influence in how I handle my job."

The University has had a long history with the GI Bill, as one of its students was famously the first recipient of the bill. In 1944, GW student Don Balfour became the first student veteran to receive benefits from what was then a new GI Bill. According to documents published in Gelman Library's GWU Encyclopedia, Balfour, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1945, interviewed the head of the Veteran's Administration the day the GI Bill went into effect, unknowingly making history when he was allowed to sign up for benefits during the interview.

Chernak said his military background was just one of many reasons to enact the Yellow Ribbon Program.

"As we looked at our policies in regard to the commitment we made to the Yellow Ribbon Program, I can't help but think there is some positive bias," Chernak said. "Especially when I myself benefitted from the GI Bill. I can understand how retooling and preparing yourself for an eventual career after the military really can be life-shaping and a very positive experience."

One of GW's own veterans Brian Hawthorne has worked closely with both administrators and said having fellow veterans in the administration is important.

"We have a lot of allies in the administration, but it's nice to have someone who can really represent you and walk through your shoes," said Hawthorne, the co-founder and president of The GW Veterans. "That's how I see Dr. Chernak and Dr. Lehman. Both of them have been really receptive and accepting. Certain things would not have happened without their support."

Chernak said that his meetings with students like Hawthorne have helped influence the decisions he's made as an administrator.

"I got more involved with institutional decisions to try and address a lot of the issues that Brian Hawthorne brought to my attention," Chernak said. "When you're in a position where you can actually affect for the better the opportunity and lifestyle while students are here, that's something I get a lot of pleasure out of."